Sayonara To Nippon, Nyet To Russia

Denied access to the Kamchatka Peninsula, Alvah and Diana are in the midst of a 1,300-mile passage from Japan to the Aleutian islands. From "The Roger Henry File" for August 21, 2008

Alvah headshot 368

Billy Black

We departed Japan reluctantly for it is a nation that could have easily absorbed a year of our time and energies. But the season in the far north is wearing on and waits for no man.

Captains I talked with who have far more pull, patience, and money than I, ultimately wasted all three in vain attempts to secure visas for the Kuril Islands and Kamchatka Peninsula of Far East Russia.

I so desperately wanted to see this wilderness that I told CW editor at large Herb McCormick in an interview last year that if official visas were not obtainable I intended to use "Johnny Walker Diplomacy;" that is every time an official asked for my permit I would shove a bottle of scotch into his hand. That wasn't hyperbole. I meant it. I want to go, and if I were a singlehander I would tack the Roger Henry to the west right now, for Kamchatka lays just over the horizon.

But I am not a singlehander, and a calmer mind prevailed. Diana has always played the conservative check to my cowboy ways. She read to me an account of a sailing crew that, in spite of having the proper paperwork, was arrested upon arrival in Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, and threatened with the confiscation of their vessel. That made up her mind, and the eloquence of Daniel Webster himself could not have overcome her images of thin gruel in a freezing gulag. I had no logical rebuttal and finally had to agree that a direct shot to the Aleutians was our only alternative.

So now we are at sea, the one place I seldom get myself into trouble. We are in a time warp; a sensory deprivation tank, for we are moving through swirling fog under cloud-shrouded skies. Was it three days ago that Diana called excitedly, "Look directly up. A star!" But it was gone before I could get to the cockpit.

Our routine is unerring: four hours on, four hours off. A hot cup of tea awaits Diana as she crawls out of her berth. Once she has her foul-weather gear on and the safety harness clipped, I pass on the necessary information. "No shipping. The wind is veering and increasing."

We try to make sail changes and course decisions at the change of watch so the person going down can get some uninterrupted sleep, but somehow nature refuses to bend to that timetable. So does Halifax. When she feels like a little rub up or yet another feed, she will stubbornly thump a sleeping Diana in the nose until she gets her way.

You forage for yourself for breakfast and lunch. Diana gets up an hour early to prepare dinner. I stay up an hour late to eat with her and share some time together. If not for that we would be like two ships passing in the night.

In that hour I try to pull in weather forecasts, pump up the day tank, do a deck check, and make sure the bilge is dry. Diana replenishes the "at hand" supplies, stows all loose items, and if the forecast calls for a bit of rough and tumble, fills the thermos and cooks ahead for the next few meals.

We have not forwarded the ship's clock even though we have passed through three time zones since Hokkaido, as we don't want to short-change anyone on their sleep, for it is a valuable commodity and we "put it in the bank" at every opportunity. Because of this and our ever higher latitude dawn seeps through the fog at 0200.

We would consider ourselves lucky not to get blasted at least once on this 1,300-mile passage because the low-pressure systems roll out of Siberia directly over our path with exhausting regularity.

Still, hope springs eternal, and even though we know it is futile from this far out, we extrapolate our present course and speed into an ETA at Attu, the outermost island of the Aleutian Chain.

Tonight's forecast calls for the "Perfect Storm" to slam us just before that theoretical arrival. Diana read this, groaned, and for the first time in 25 years of sailing together, turned to me and said, "We should shake out a reef. I'm thinking of leaving the date of that report blank for future use."

Before leaving Hokkaido I inspected and repacked the stern drogue and parachute sea anchor. I carefully flaked and lashed the storm warp to the inverted dingy on the foredeck so it will be immediately at hand for deployment. The bulletproof storm-sail is already hanked, sheeted and bagged, ready for hard use. Diana laid out the emergency ditch-kit and life jackets, and then pulled out heavy woolen socks, mittens, hats, and ski goggles.

The Laysan albatross, fulmars, and storm petrels are markedly active. Perhaps they have their own forecasting system and are feeding up while they can. Man's control stops at the shoreline. Out here Mother Ocean rules and you take it as it comes.

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